some stuff I found in my Mom’s files

Yesterday, I searched through some of my Mom’s papers. In almost all of her file cabinets, she has a folder bearing my name.

I found some interesting things.

Tennis rankings from 1972. I was ranked 27 in NC. Not bad. Several of those guys ahead of me ended up on ACC teams and on the pro tour. In my mind, I rarely won  matches in those days. As I read through the list of players, I could remember them distinctly: their serves, their forehands, their backhands, their footwork and style of play, and their personalities off the court. Back then, that was my life.

I found lots of short stories and papers I wrote in college. It was fun reading the notes and grades from my professors, thinking about them, who they were for me, and how they took their time to be incredibly generous with their feedback.

Bynum Shaw, the fiction prof at Wake Forest, told me that my stories were the closest things to being real short stories in the entire class, and for that reason, he was giving me an A. Bravo for me! Then he said that the only drawback with one of my stories was the cryptic remark one of my characters — Meg — utters at the end of the story. “She doesn’t know what she means,” Mr. Shaw writes. “The character she’s talking to doesn’t know what it means. I don’t know what it means. You don’t know what it means. And the reader sure as hell doesn’t know what it means.”

That’s so familiar.

Also in those files were notebooks of poetry, letters from girls, letters from friends, letters from Mom, a picture from junior senior prom, term papers, college literary magazines with my stuff in it, lots of school newspaper articles I wrote, my selective service notice, college acceptance letters, etc…

Mom saved evidence of victories, and I’m grateful for it.

One thing that really struck me was a letter Mom wrote me — probably in college — that somehow wound up back in my file in her files.

This was in the days before email and before word processing. She typed it on a sheet of “Notes from a Jewish Mother” stationary.

In the letter, Mom says that she is working on a story about an SBI agent and that the agent may be fired as a result of her story. She wonders whether it will be published and obviously has concerns about what the agent did and the impact her reporting will have on his life. She stops there and says that she’ll tell me more about it next time we talk.

Then she says that this is a letter about nothing, just to say that she’s up late, working, and wanted to write me, so that I’ll have something in my mail, and to let me know that she loves me.

Then she makes a quip about my not writing her, and warns me that if I write letters to my friends with as little frequency as I write her, then I’ll be a lonely person with little mail to read.

The message there is that what one says is less important than the act of being in communication with those we love. That relationships matter.

Thanks, Mom.

thursday, october 20

Thursday morning, in the wee hours, I checked the Salisbury Post website on my phone and read the newly posted review of my play, Poochie.

It was a great review, so the normal action to take, next, would have been to celebrate the good publicity by posting a link on Facebook.

But I never did share that link. Because of what was going on, it would have been most unseemly. I did peck out a quick thank you note on my phone to Ed Norvell. He had been kind enough to attend dress rehearsal the night before and then — a day later, with a last minute request and no warning — write the review.

Still wearing a suit from opening night, lying in the recliner, which I had pulled up next to my mother’s bed, I lay there, alone with her, watching her breathing get slower and slower until it stopped. It was 3am.

An hour or so later, Karen, from Hospice, told me that I had been given a gift. Such an understatement.

About 5am, I emailed something short to a few friends, and at 6am, one of them called me and asked about my mother and what she meant to me.

I said she had encouraged me, she had supported me, she had taught me, and she had inspired me. He suggested I take a minute before the show that night and share that with the audience — which I did.

I also added a little joke, saying that she was waiting on me to get a good review before she died. Whatever context we have for our lives is invented anyway — so I might as well make up something that empowers me.

Some of my dearest friends came to the show that night. The new play had opened, gotten a great review and great audience, my mother had passed away, I had worked very little and was totally broke, and I had not slept in two days.

And there they were. Great friends with smiles and hugs. And they watched my play.  It was the perfect visitation.

I never posted that review on Facebook, but something even better appeared there. Throughout that day and the next, my iPhone blinked and winked at me every few minutes as another friend posted a condolences on my wall.

Religions and cultures give us things to do at times like these. But no religion and no culture could possibly invent this. This was a completion filled with poignancy and love and luck and God and magic. Thank you.

Mom would have wanted…

I lost my father almost five years ago.

My mother is very close to passing away now.

Some might say, with the advancement of Alzheimer’s Disease, that we’ve already lost her.  I don’t see her that way at all.

One thing I’ve noticed, however, is that her children are quick to use the phrase “Dad would have wanted…”  or “Mom would have wanted…” and then fill in the blank with whatever they want to do.

Some examples:

Question:  Should I read a book or play tennis?

Answer:  Mom would have wanted me to play tennis.

Question:  Should I fix a pot roast or go to a movie?

Answer:  Dad would have wanted me to go to a movie.

I don’t say it very often, but I, personally, am more apt to have thoughts such as “Dad would turn over in his grave if he could hear this bullshit.”

This makes me think about how religion must have started.
The first thought was “Who made all this?

Answer:  God.

The second thought was “How did He do it?”

Answer:  The Book of Genesis and other ancient texts.

The next thought is, “Wow, what a powerful Being.”

And then the next question.  The biggie:  What does God want me to do now?

Answer:  God would have wanted…fill in the blank.

With Dad, Mom, and God, it’s awesomely convenient.  With a little ingenuity, you can justify anything!

Alzheimer's: walking for memory

Usually, I start my day with yoga, and then walk later in the day or evening.

Today I walked early, in the Alzheimer’s Association 3 mile Memory Walk.

By the time I got home, in time for lunch, I already had nine of my ten thousand steps for the day.

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It was a fun morning.

I went with Glenda Dyson. Her mother and mine are dorm mates in the Alzheimer’s unit at Carillon Assisted Living.

Glenda is also a customer of ours.  She advertises her store, Just the Thing, in Coffee News.  Just the Thing carries educational games and toys for children — and for their teachers and parents.

I first met Glenda when I was technology facilitator at Rockwell Elementary School.  She taught kindergarten.

Interestingly enough, another woman in our little group of Carillon walkers was also a former kindergarten teacher.  She taught 32 years and said she would have taught a few more years but retired so that she could spend more time caring for her mother.

Kindergarten teachers have the extreme patience and kindness that make them particularly good at taking care of mothers with Alzheimer’s.

In some ways, a person with Alzheimer’s is not unlike a small child.

Besides raising money for The Alzheimer’s Association, in order to find better treatments and hopefully a cure for Alzheimer’s, the value in a walk like this was the sheer emotional support it offers those going through this.

At least that was helpful for me.

A three mile walk gives you a little time to compare notes.

For example, I found that I’m not the only one who knows what it’s like to visit the ER three times in four days (and four times in two weeks) because a mother fell and hit her head.

This happens to a lot of people.

I will say that the pace was a little brisk for me.  I thought I walked pretty fast, but I don’t.  These ladies walked at a clip that had me huffing and puffing.

In the Alzheimer’s unit, women dramatically outnumber the men — presumably because they live longer.  Maybe they live longer because they walk faster!

Notes from the Sandwich Generation (update on my mom and her Alzheimer's)

Legend has it — and it may, quite possibly, be true — that Rose Post, my mother, won more NC press awards than any journalist in the history of the state (while raising five children).

Whether she won “the most” or just quite a few, she achieved what she did for many reasons:  high energy, longevity, and talent.

Now, she’s taken up a humble residence in the Alzheimer’s unit at Carillon Assisted Living, her memory so depleted that I feel a pang of joy each time she remembers to call me by the name she gave me:  “Sammy.”

She moved to Salisbury, NC, as a young child, and lived here almost her entire 84 years — over 50 of which were spent as a newspaper reporter for The Salisbury Post.

She knew a remarkable amount of local history.  Not necessarily the textbook type of history — battles and government events and churches, although she knew a lot of that — but much of the human side of life in the American South in the second half of the 20th century.

All of her fellow residents at Carillon certainly knew their share.  Each was a vibrant, functioning person with the entire constellation of thoughts and activity we all in enjoy and sometimes take for granted.

But she was a particularly nosy busy body who had a tendency to write stuff down and publish it for all the locals to read.

I remember listening to her gossip about who carried on with who during the various wars, when boyfriends and husbands were overseas.  People sneaked around and climbed through windows and even got pregnant.  The tabloid stuff.

But she also intimately knew the history of civil rights and desegregation, school merger and higher education, tornadoes, floods, leaders, writers, crackpots, business ventures, centenarians with perfect memory, changes in Russia and China, and even a bit of presidential politics.

And she knew many of the players.  She interviewed all kinds of famous people.

She knew about immigration, since both of her parents escaped messy regimes in Europe for a better life here.

When a school principal once told me that he didn’t expect Mexicans to do well in school because, after all, they don’t hear English at home, I replied that it’s actually quite possible.  My mother’s parents didn’t speak English at home, and she could read and write in English just fine (a lot better than he did, even though his parents did speak English at home — although I did not say that).

It’s not so easy now.

Alzheimer’s Disease strips away the past and future, and leaves one in a virtually speechless, fleeting fog of here-and-now.

The adjustment to this new residence — a life that leaned toward the vast, now reduced to the minimal — so hard for her family and her friends, seems to be have been quite easy for her.  She doesn’t seem to know where she is anyway.  Her new, communal home, comes with a bit of built-in social life.  There’s an old friend or two among her suite mates, even an old college friend, a woman who raised five children here in Salisbury in the same era.  I sat between them yesterday, thinking how long and well they knew each other, even though they barely seem to know that now.

They are receiving care that is loving, gentle, and kind.  Do I dare say, given her condition, that she enjoys it?  Possibly so.

There were other options, and there’s been quite a bit of controversy in the family about how to deal with Mom’s care.  At one point, a couple of years ago, I renounced my Power of Attorney because I couldn’t live my life while engaging in each sibling battle/decision.

I do know that Mom took care of her mother, in her home, as long as she possibly could.  My grandmother, Bubie, ultimately died in a nursing home at the age of 97.  Mom bought long term care insurance for herself precisely because she did not want to be a burden to us.  She told me so.  She also told me that she wanted to stay in her own house as long as possible, until she didn’t know where she was anymore.  Then she wanted to move into a place similar to where she is now.

So, despite the controversies among her children — and there could be more — I feel her wishes have been honored.

My home, in the only house I’ve ever owned, is only three blocks from hers, the home I grew up in.  It’s an easy five minute walk.  So the ties were close, and the adjustment may be more difficult for me than for Mom.

But I’m lucky that she’s in a good place that specializes in Alzheimer’s that’s only a five minute drive.  I’m content, knowing she’s safe, and surrounded by people who have some training and respect for what she’s dealing with.  I like visiting her there, and I’m not worrying as much about her when I’m not there.

Psychologists and economists tell us that, as much as we like to pretend we care about others — and, of course, we do — we mostly care about ourselves.

I could run for President of that club.

Some say that we’re experiencing an Alzheimer’s epidemic that is not entirely attributable to the aging population.  I try to drink plenty of water, exercise, do lots of deep breathing, eat blueberries and fish — but…

Yesterday, I dropped off my car at the mechanic and walked home.  He called, a few minutes later, and asked where I had left the key.

“Right beside the cash register,” I said.

“It’s not here,” he said.

I knew that’s where I put it, but I checked my pocket and there it was.

So I guess that’s my albatross, and the albatross of millions of others in my generation.  Each time we lose our keys or forget where anything is (I often lose my glasses and my shoes), we get to wonder if we’re getting Alzheimer’s Disease and, if so, how it’s progressing and how much of this good time we have left.

A picture of Mom

Mom, 2/24/10

Normally, it might not seem so normal for a 53 year old man to post pictures of his mother on his blog.

But Mom has lived a public life, and some of my friends see this blog and will enjoy seeing this picture.

We were in the kitchen, at Mom’s house, and Kathy Chaffin was talking about having to get up very early and ride a school bus.  She’s writing a story about school bus drivers.  She mentioned that a photographer was going also.

Mom has always liked to brag about me.  Her criticism could be harsh also, but the motherly praise often fell into the “his  _____ don’t stink” category.

Alzheimer’s is a brutal disease that robs memory and leaves a person, at a certain stage, stuck with only a momentary, fleeting wisp of a thought — at best.

In this case, the word “photographer” prompted Mom to demand Kathy’s attention in order to tell her that “Sammy is a wonderful photographer.”

In high school, when I took grainy, barely visible, no-contrast pictures for the school newspaper, I established the fact that I’m not much of a photographer.  But this was just the convergence of a word and a person and a feeling that prompted such a coherent — if not accurate — remark.

Thanks to camera phones, I decided to make an effort to instantly validate her claim by requesting a smile for a picture.  Maybe not a “wonderful” photographer, but a photographer nonetheless.

Alzheimer’s robs memory.  It doesn’t necessarily rob a person’s capacity for joy — as you can see here.